Separation Anxiety and Sleep ( or the lack of it!)
Many mums ask me about separation anxiety and know and expect it to rear its ugly head at the 9 month mark causing crying clinginess crankiness and sometimes sleepless nights. A lot of mums don't realise that separation anxiety, while difficult to deal with in the short term , is a good thing and that it can rear its head during the toddler years too sometimes having an even bigger impact on sleep ( or the lack there of)
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety in its simplest terms is worry,fear and/or anxiety a baby or toddlers feels at the thought, idea of or actual separation from their main carer usually Mum and sometimes dad too. However even in the presence of dad some littles one still becomes anxious and show a preference for mum.
When our little ones are born they don’t realise that they are separate entities from us their mothers, they share the same energy field as us too ( this is why they are so sensitive to our moods and tend to play up when we just aren't in the mood for it). They are born basically believing that you &them are one and the same, and that you are actually a part of them. As they grow & mature intellectually and develop physically, they begin to understand the concept of object permanence ie that things still exist even when out of sight.
Before this point babies don't understand that even out of sight objects and people still exist. As they develop and their understanding of object permanence solidifies they learn that not only is mummy separate from her, but that she still exists when out of sight and they worry and miss you and also question whether or not you will return….of course you always do but your little one doesn't know this and so panics and becomes clingy when you leave them or disappear out of eye shot, some babies are so sensitive to separation anxiety that even not being able to hear their mother is enough to cause distress.
Separation Anxiety is a worry for your little one because:
They realise mummy is a separate person to them and can leave them
They know mummy still exists even when they can’t see her & miss her, and potentially mummy may never come back ( which of course you always do.)
Separation Anxiety is a normal and healthy part of development.
Many mums worry that their babies sudden clinginess is their fault from giving too much attention or ‘spoiling’ their little ones which is totally and completely UNTRUE, it's actually a sign of healthy attachment between you and your baby.
Separation anxiety can kick in at any time between 6 - 18 months even longer sometimes and often peaks at around 9 months, 12 months and then again at 18 months, so if your little one has suddenly become clingy, cranky and only wants you it's likely to be Separation Anxiety rearing its head again.
So why does it impact on my babies sleep and night & nap times?
Often times a little one with heightened separation anxiety will cry and resist naps at bedtime or wake and become distressed throughout the night because they realise or fear being separated from you being asleep means being separate from you and also venturing into an unknown world alone. Think of it like this, if you are at work and leave your little one in daycare or with a nanny they may become upset at the thought or reality of you leaving but they have someone familiar( key worker/nanny) to take your place as caregiver to comfort or soothe them till you return. But with sleep who are we handing them into the care of?....the sandman??? To them sleep is an unknown and unpredictable element.They are alone in the land of nod and for a little one with heightened anxiety that can be a very frightening experience.
Can you see why that would be distressing for a little one?
Little one is most likely already tired.
The room is dark and
probably very quiet
There’s no mummy & daddy or sign of them or even if in the same room your asleep!
Separation Anxiety. can expose your baby to new emotions and feelings that can be difficult for them to understand or deal with like fear, worry or sadness
So what can I do to help my baby sleep and get through Separation Anxiety?
Reframe your thoughts about Separation Anxiety - a lot of mums can feel touched out or overwhelmed by their little ones constant need of reassurance from them and feel like they have caused the anxiety by spoiling or responding too much to their little ones, this is untrue and Separation Anxiety is a sign of healthy attachment - get help from your village to help you manage the extra attention your little one needs from you and to allow you the chance to take a break and regroup if it all gets too much. And know that this is temporary.
Respond always - Your baby can't help feel fearful, this is a stressful & emotional time for them and they will want comfort from their safe place ( you) not returning to them when they become distressed just confirms what they fear!! And can make the clinginess much worse in the long run. To foster independence in our little ones we must give them the comfort and reassurance when they need it.
Maintain your routines - help your baby feel secure and safe by maintaining your routines, remember babies like when they know what's happening now and can predict what's happening next, so keep you daytime routines and bedtime routines in place as much as possible, you may even wish to extend your BTR to include more quality 1-2-1 time with your little one, this will help them to wind down and relax ( and you too) and feel secure, as they are getting from you what they need, comfort and security from their safe haven which is you!
Consider a comfort object - to replace or substitute you when your away from them. Ideally this is something like a stuffed animal or a blanket/muslim that smells of you. You can introduce one to your little one if you haven’t done so already. To condition it or to encourage your child to become attached. Keep it with the both of you when you settle or calm them. Wear it down your top or spray it with your perfume so that it smells of you. Conditioning a comfort object is not something that can be done quickly. It can take weeks even months for a little one to become attached to it so be sure to keep it with the both of you constantly for the first few weeks
Model the desired mood - i see this so much many mums do this, even i am guilty of it but it can really make life more difficult of you mirror your little ones anxiety. If and when your baby becomes upset or distressed at you leaving them, try not to mirror the panic they feel. This reinforces their fears as they think ‘If mummy is panicking then there must be something to panic about’. However if they become upset and you smile and offer reassurance and you ALWAYS respond, they quickly learn that there is nothing to panic about and clam down so much more quickly.
Don't introduce new stimuli or stress - now is not the time to try out that new baby class or start daycare due to heading back to work or to have a party or lots of new faces around. It could be far to overwhelming for your little one along with everything else that is going on for them intellectually.
SeparationAnxiety will normally ease up after a few weeks but the steps illustrated above shoul dhelp you navigate through those weeks a little but easier.
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Find out more about Charmaine and the work she does with sleep deprived mums here